The Jeff Wise Blog

Beguiled by Hollywood, Drawn to a Death in the Wilderness

In 1992, hunters traveling through the backcountry near Denali National Park made a gruesome discovery: inside an abandoned schoolbus that had been left in the backcountry as an emergency shelter they found the emaciated corpse of a young man. Further investigation revealed that the body belonged to Christopher McCandless, a 22-year-old wanderer who had styled himself “Alexander Supertramp.” Lost in the wilderness, McCandless had apparently been unable fend for himself and died of starvation.

To Alaskans, the gruesome find was sad but not surprising: another greenhorn had come to the north country without the necessary respect for the dangers of the outdoors and had paid the ultimate price. But Outside magazine writer Jon Krakauer looked into the story and was able to piece together a nobler tale. Delving into McCandless’s history, he found a troubled soul caught up in the romance of the road, a young man too unseasoned to understand his own limitations. He turned his research into a book, Into the Wild. When Sean Penn made a movie of Krakauer’s book, the McCandless story became even more gauzy: here was a man, not fatally compromised by overconfidence, but tragically gifted with an uncompromising commitment to living life in the fullest.

Many Alaskans rankled at what they saw as Krakauer and Penn’s glorifying of recklessness. But what particularly disturbed them was that after the book came out, Into the Wild fans began trekking into the backcountry to find the bus where McCandless died. Their numbers greatly increased after the movie was released in 2007. Far from learning from McCandless’ mistakes, they were re-enacting them. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Survival

How to Hunt Like a Caveman

A mist hangs in the forested valley as dawn approaches. Somewhere a lone bird calls. I sit on my haunches, listening. There are wild pigs in this forest, somewhere. Daylight might draw them up through this thicket to the ridgeline behind me. My quarry is a razor-tusked beast that can weigh several hundred pounds and is famous for exacting violent revenge on hunters. I check my weapons—a wooden bow and a single stone-tipped arrow—and find myself wondering: Is this really a great idea?

So begins my latest “I’ll Try Anything” column in Popular Mechanics, about my time stone-age hunting with Santa Cruz wilderness expert Cliff Hodges. You can read the full story here.

Filed under: Survival

UPDATE: Breaking Coverage of John Graybill Story

For those following the John Graybill story, two well-reported stories about John and his final flight are now available online. In the Anchorage Daily News, Kyle Hopkins has fuller details of what happened in the runup to his fatal crash, including quotes from his daughter. And over at Alaska Dispatch, Craig Medred has an account of the controversy that swirled around the John Graybill legend.

Filed under: Aviation

Safer Bush Flying: The Technology Is There, But Will Pilots Use It?

Popular Mechanics has just put up a story I wrote as a follow-up to the John Graybill and Ted Stevens crashes, about how the technology exists to make bush flying much safer, but that for cultural reasons many pilots will not use it. I write:

The major killer in bush flying is what aviation pros call “VFR into IMC,” short for “visual flight rules into instrument meteorological conditions”—in other words, a pilot who is navigating by looking out the window suddenly finds himself in clouds. A pilot who isn’t trained to fly in a white-out can quickly become disoriented or crash into an unseen mountain or other obstacle (this nasty outcome has its own acronym, CFIT, for “controlled flight into terrain.”)

Ironically, Ted Stevens was a leading advocate for a new technology that might well have saved his life. Called ADS-B, for Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, it relies on GPS receivers in each aircraft that broadcast their location to ground controllers and to other aircraft. When a precursor of the nationwide system, called Capstone, was rolled out in Alaska back in 1999, it was in great part due to the influence of Stevens, who was himself a pilot. The FAA spent hundreds of millions to build a network of ground stations and to buy ADS-B gear for both private and publicly owned airplanes. Inside the cockpit, the equipment displays uplinked vital information. “It gives them a cockpit display showing where they are in relation to bad weather and terrain,” says FAA spokesman Paul Takemoto. “Having that situational awareness cut the fatal accident rate for that type of aircraft almost in half.”

Yet Stevens’s plane was not equipped with ADS-B gear. And while it did have an alternate form of terrain-avoidance system, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) says that it doesn’t know whether it was turned on or working. According to a recent Wall Street Journal profile, pilots that knew Theron Smith, Stevens’s pilot, said that he was an Alaskan pilot of the old school, liable to take risks that pilots in more civilized climes would look askance at, such as repeatedly flying the same approach to a socked-in airport over and over, below minimum prescribed altitudes, in the hope of catching a glimpse of the runway. One has to wonder how much attention old-school pilots would pay to a machine warning that he was flying too low.

Smith’s do-or-die attitude remains incredibly common in Alaska, where vast distances, rugged terrain, and a lack of detailed weather information mean that pilots still need to rely on their skills and savvy above all else. In a 1995 report on the hazards of flying in Alaska (pdf), the NTSB identified what it termed “bush syndrome,” or the willingness of pilots to take risks that would generally be considered unacceptable anywhere else. The report’s authors noted that 85 percent of the pilots they talked to admitted to flying VFR into IMC, and 85 percent said that they had done so intentionally, due to operational pressure.

You can read the whole thing here.

Filed under: Aviation

John Graybill’s National Geographic Adventure Profile

Since I put up my last post I’ve received several emails asking for the text of my 2001 article about John Graybill in National Geographic Adventure, since the link to that magazine’s website does not include the full text, I’m posting it here Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Aviation

Terrible News

By the darkest of dark coincidences, I have just learned that the very evening I happened to put up a post about John Graybill he died, along with his wife Dolly, in a crash in bad weather near McGrath, Alaska. As I write this I have just found out the news and am in a state of shock. John was a controversial figure in his day but friend and foe alike were in awe of his flying abilities. When I met him in 2000 his outlaw days were behind him, and even his old sparring partners at Fish and Game seemed to think of him as a favorite uncle. I found him to be a natural-born storyteller and a kind, gentle soul. He and Dolly welcomed me into their lives with the warmth of family.

And yes, John was an amazing pilot. Spending a week with him, zipping over the Alaskan landscape at 30 feet, inspired me to get my own pilot’s license, and that in turn has changed my life in ways I can’t begin to tally.

Filed under: Aviation

Welcome To New York, Suckaz!

Above is a map that passengers arriving at New York’s LaGuardia airport encounter upon first stepping out of the baggage claim area in the central terminal area. (I took it early this morning after arriving on a delayed flight from Toronto that had left me feeling dazed and unsure whether I might be mildly hallucinating.) Savvy airport users will recognize that it is in fact completely backwards — the correct map, from the Port Authority’s website, looks like this:

Presumably the Port Authority’s intention is to immediately disorient visitors, so that they can be more easily preyed upon by cunning locals. Or perhaps the maps were simply the work of the same people who designed the star map on the ceiling of Grand Central Station, which is also famously ass-backwards. Either way, it’s good to see that New York traditions are going strong.

Filed under: Aviation

At Play in Ted Stevens Crash, A Familiar Culprit

The news out of Alaska over the last few days, about the air crash near Dillingham that killed former senator Ted Stevens, is sad but not entirely surprising. Flying bush planes in the north country is by far the most dangerous kind of aviation in the United States. The details of the crash have yet to emerge, but one thing is clear: the flight ended amid weather conditions that were marginal at best, with low clouds and rain obscuring rough terrain. These are all elements in a type of dangerous flying that has killed many, many Alaskan pilots over the years: scud running.

Scud running, simply put, is flying by visual flight rules through weather conditions that could close in around you at any time. A few years ago, I traveled to Alaska to spend a week with a legendary bush pilot named John Graybill. Every other bush pilot I spoke to was in awe of John’s stick-and-rudder skill. At the time, in 2000, he was 70 years old, and had survived no fewer than five potentially fatal crashes. He was quite blunt in assessing the reason for his repeated survival: he was, he said, simply very lucky.

Scud running is particularly dangerous in Alaska because it is so common. In the Lower 48, most pilots fly to destinations that have sophisticated radar navigation systems. In Alaska, a good percentage of flights are bound for airstrips that are little more than patches of dirt, or a strip of sand or quiet patch of river. The only way to get is by eyeballing it. So if you fly into a cloud, and find yourself unable to see the ground, you’re really screwed. Once you’re disoriented, you could easily fly into a mountain, or a tree, or what have you.

The problem is that flying in the Alaskan bush inevitably involves some kind of scud running. For one thing, you never know when the weather might change on you halfway through the flight. For another, bush pilots inevitably feel pressure from clients or their bosses to take their load where it needs to go. Ceiling low? Pass obscured by clouds? You’ll be able to pick your way through. With enough experience, pilots may begin to feel they have an intuitive understanding of when such gambits will work and when they won’t. In reality, they’re counting on luck, as Graybill said. Every flight into marginal weather conditions is a game of Russian Roulette.

Graybill told me that when he first arrived in Alaska in the 1950s, he took advice from an old-timer, Glenn Gregory, who drummed into him the first rule of bush flying: “He told me, ‘Don’t lose ground contact flying in Alaska. Don’t do it.’ I had grounds to remember those words later on.”

Later Graybill told me the full story, which provided a vivid understanding of how a pilot can be lured into scud running, and why it can be so dangerous: Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Uncategorized

Breaking the Oldest Land-Speed Record

Looks fast, right? It isn’t.

A few weeks ago Popular Mechanics posted my article about the British Steam Car Challenge and how they managed to break (barely) a record that dates back (if you squint at it the right way) to 1906. The full story is here, but today I wanted to take the opportunity to post some video from my time out in the desert with the team, so that interested readers can get a sense of what this thing looks like in action. In the video, it seems like it’s scorching, but the official speed on this run was only 127 mph.

They managed to up that figure later, but as one astute PM commenter observed, “3 Megawatts is equivalent to 4,000 horsepower, and they only got 150 mph? Something is very wrong with their design.”

Filed under: Thrills

The Exact Opposite of a Prius

Here’s another video from last Saturday night in Morocco, Indiana. Al Zukakas of Chicago takes his “Hot Blade” jet dragster to 269 mph in the quarter mile. The speed is impressive, but what really gets the crowd going is the sheer power of the sound, heat, and flame coming out of that big turbine. You can feel the thumping in your bones.

Filed under: Recreation

Interviews with the Author

Thinking About Fear & the Brain

If I find myself in a severe crisis, will I be able to keep it together? How can I control anxiety and panic? Is it possible to lead a life less bounded by fear? These are the sorts of questions that I'll be exploring in this blog, an offshoot of my book, Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger, published on December 8, 2009 by Palgrave Macmillan.

Video Introduction

Also by Jeff Wise